Milgram’s obedience experiments

Stanley Milgram’s obedience research burst into print in 1963 in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. In his first journal article Milgram reported that people repeatedly shocked a man they believed to be in pain because they had been told to by an authority figure. He likened the behaviour of his subjects in the lab to Nazis during the Holocaust. The seeming cruelty of his subject, the ingeniousness of the experiment and Milgram’s sensational results – that 65% of people went to maximum voltage – caused a sensation.  Here’s how it happened.

The set-up

In 1961, Stanley Milgram, a 27 year old assistant professor of psychology at Yale, advertised for volunteers for an experiment about memory and learning. The pay was $4.50 for an hour which back then bought 14 loaves of bread or twenty two beers.

$4.50 bought 14 loaves of bread or 22 beers.

Imagine for a minute that you had answered the ad. You would have gotten a call from someone at Yale giving you an appointment time and instructions on how to find the lab in Linsly-Chittenden Hall.

When you arrive you’re met by Mr Williams, a scientist in a grey lab coat. Another volunteer just like you is already seated and waiting, a friendly looking fellow with a nice smile. Williams explains that in the experiment one of you will be the teacher, the other the learner.  You draw lots for the roles. You get the role of teacher.

Williams takes the other man, the ‘learner’ into a small room, and after the learner is seated, Williams straps his arms to the chair and fits electrodes to his wrists. Williams explains that the experiment’s aim  is to test the effect of punishment on learning. Your job as the teacher will be to read out a list of word pairs to the learner. His job is to memorise them, and you will test him. If he gets any wrong, you will give him an electric shock.

The shocks might be painful but not dangerous.

What happened next depended on which variation of the obedience experiment you’d been selected for. In the most famous one, the learner would ask Williams if he should be worried about receiving shocks, given that he’d been having treatment for a heart condition. Williams answered that the shocks might be painful, but they weren’t dangerous.

The teacher would be taken by Williams into a second, larger room and seated at a table, in front of an imposing shock machine. It had 30 switches, labelled from 15 to 450 volts, and from ‘slight shock’ to ‘very strong shock’, then ‘danger: severe shock’, and eventually simply ‘XXX’.

Williams demonstrated how the machine worked, at the same time explaining to the teacher that if the learner gave a wrong answer on the memory test, the teacher should punish him with an electric shock, increasing the voltage with each incorrect response.


The teacher read the word pairs into a microphone, so the learner could memorise them. Then they moved on to the test. Things began well. The learner got the first two answers right. But then he started making mistakes, earning 15, 30, and then 45 volts for successive incorrect answers. He got the next one right; no shock. Then  another wrong; 60 volts. Then another; 75 volts.

The shock machine had 30 switches 15 to 450 volts.

With the first shocks the learner grunted in pain, but as the voltage increased, his protests and yells became more vehement. At 150 volts, he yelled that he wanted to be released, and at 240 volts he shouted that his heart was bothering him and he wanted to stop.

Once the shocks reached the range designated as ‘extreme intensity’ on the machine, he screamed in anguish, and soon after ell silent. Despite the obvious sounds of the learner’s pain and, in many cases, the teacher’s own agitation and stress, 65 per cent of Milgram’s teachers followed the instructions and progressed through all 30 switches. They gave maximum-voltage shocks to the man, by this stage disturbingly silent, in the room next door.

At the conclusion of the experiment, the teacher learned that the shock machine was a prop; the experimenter and the learner were actors; the screams were scripted; and the subject of the experiment was not memory at all, but how far people will go in obeying orders from an authority figure.

This is the standard story of the Milgram obedience experiments — it’s the one that has been reproduced in the media, and handed down to generations of psychology students through teachers and textbooks. But like most stories that are passed from generation to generation, this one has lost details in the re-telling, it’s been edited and simplified. The real story is more intriguing, compelling and complicated.